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Washington State Stops Referring Parents of Foster Care Children to Child Support Collections

Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families

(The Center Square) – Citing financial hardships for parents and longer stays in foster care for children, the Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families has stopped referring parents to child support collection after a child is placed into foster care.

“We know that most parents are already facing financial hardships when they come into contact with the child welfare system,” DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter said in a Thursday news release, the same day the new policy went into effect. “This old and misguided policy only deepened that hardship and made it harder for parents to get their kids home.”

The DCYF referred to two studies in making its case for the new policy: 1) a 2016 examination of Wisconsin’s large regional variation in child support referral policy that indicated child support enforcement actions may increase the time a child remains in foster care, and 2) a 2019 Washington State Department of Social and Health Services study that showed the state collected only 39 cents for each dollar spent trying to collect.

Money was a secondary factor in the department’s decision, according to Jason Wettstein, DCYF director of communications.

“Cost savings to the state is a side benefit,” he told The Center Square in an email. “The primary motivation is that referrals for child support collection tend to lead to more time in foster care, and the outcome we are looking for is to support reunification for youth when that is possible. And, yes, it will save money for the state over time.”

The Center Square asked about an estimate of any cost savings. 

“I have been checking in with a colleague, and we do not have projections,” Wettstein answered. “This is because it will depend on the number of foster care cases that DCYF closes. We really do not know at this point how many cases will remain open due to federal requirements like TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families], or remain open because another parent has initiated child support enforcement. What we do know is a DSHS cost-effectiveness study shows that Washington collected only $0.39 on these cases for each dollar spent trying to collect.”

The move away from child support collection comes on the heels of a report last month by the Washington State Auditor’s Office that found DCYF could not provide sufficient records on $271 million in childcare payments made to low-income families.

The report focused on how state agencies handled nearly $37 billion in federal funds between July 2020 and June 2021.

At the time, Wettstein told The Center Square that might mean a financial ask of the state Legislature next year so the agency can do a better job of tracking how it spends funds.

Earlier this year, the DCYF ended the practice of charging families for their child’s incarceration.

In March, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law House Bill 2050, which ends “parent pay” – that is, requiring parents to pay for their child’s incarceration with a portion of their gross income.

The legislation was requested by DCYF.